In the past I’ve written about how powerful questions have inspired my students to take informed civic action. Of all my students’ accomplishments, nothing makes me prouder than their civic engagement, whether it’s in an NGO in Washington, a community foundation in Winston-Salem, a school in Kenya, an orphanage in Haiti, or wherever they choose to make a difference in the world. Their vital work all begins with a question.
Last week I led professional development trainings in North Carolina and Virginia in the inquiry-powered model of learning that uses compelling questions of rich multimedia sources of information to engage students with the world. Dr. Emma Thacker of Wake Forest University, Andy Kraft, the head of social studies instruction for the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, and I spent three days training twenty social studies teachers on the inquiry-based learning model - a pedagogical approach that invites students to explore academic content by posing, investigating, and answering compelling questions. Inquiry puts students’ questions at the heart of learning, and places just as much value on the asking and pursuing questions, as on answering them. You'll find a great example of field-tested and future-ready inquiry learning right here.
You may have heard of Google – humanity’s external hard drive – where you can find just about every answer. Since Google is about a billion times faster and a trillion times more knowledgeable than even the smartest student, modern education now needs not to teach kids the answers, but train them to ask and pursue questions. Kids don’t need to learn to be Google they need to learn to command Google. Our inquiry-learning professional development moves teachers from the past to the future.
In this future-ready, inquiry based model, compelling questions lead students through engaging multimedia sources to active understanding and informed civic action.
The key is learning to question
There are three steps in the inquiry process.
1) Start with a question.
Do you remember when there was no Google? Google it. Google was founded on September 4, 1998 in Menlo Park, CA – a fact that, thanks to Google, I don’t need to know, but that everyone needs to be able to find. Google started on the same day as I began my fifth year of teaching. By then, I already knew that filling brains with trivia was not the point of education, but as I looked around my school it was all that most of my colleagues were doing. Over the years, as Google has moved from desktop to laptop to the ubiquity of the phone, it’s become clear that out-knowing Google is no more possible than my cat catching a squirrel flying a Space Shuttle. And besides, education is bigger and nobler than cut, paste, & copy. Machines can do that; humans can do so much more!
The first and most essential step in inquiry learning is finding a compelling question in the content. Questions are like doors, and whatever content we teach will be most relevant and compelling to students when entered through powerful questions. Strong questions will make most any student actually want to know the answer. Start with the big questions & the little ones will follow. Start with the little questions & that’s usually where you’ll end.
Here’s a chart of two different sorts of questions.
2) Follow the question through rich and varied sources.
Even though we live in a visually rich and stimulating age, surrounded by a flowing 3-dimensional data stream of cartoons, pictures, videos, text, magazines, maps, charts, and infographics, most teachers are stuck in the two-dimensional world of blackboards and words. Powerful teachers are not lecturers; they are curators who assemble information from the many rich and potent sources that surround us, and marry them to compelling questions for and from our students. Here’s a list of some sources of information for students.
Graphs, charts, polls, maps, primary sources, quotes, songs, videos, pictures, photographs, political cartoons, diagrams, stories, interviews, radio, television, film clips, etc.
And here’s what the students can do with their information to become actively engaged with the material.
Students use data to make Venn diagrams, mind maps, graphic organizers, charts, compare/contrast, rankings, write letters, turn information into Tweets, turn information into an analogy, use emoticons to convey information, make an argument, make an infographic with Piktochart, present learning, make a Prezi, make a blog, make a Tumblr, turn the information into a cartoon, make a caption for a photograph.
In our professional development I helped teachers curate active lessons using exciting and varied, information-rich sources.
3) Do something about it!
The end point of inquiry learning is informed action, which transforms students from passive learners to active citizen practitioners.
Here are examples of informed civic action:
1. Petition the government about an issue of importance. Get people to sign your petition or create an online petition at change.org
2. Contact your local board of elections & make your own voter registration drive
3. Hold a teach-in on a topic of importance to you and educate your peers about something of importance to you
4. Assemble a group of people for a rally/protest/march of an issue you support
5. Attend a public meeting and speak out for something you believe in
6. Call in to a talk show and express your opinion on a topic of importance
7. Write a letter to the editor about something important to you
8. Speak to a politician or member of government on the phone or in person
9. Invite a member of government/politician to speak to your class/group
10. Send a press release to a local media outlet promoting an interest of yours
11. Tag a public sidewalk in erasable CHALK (do not use any permanent materials!) espousing a particular idea or belief
12. Print and disseminate posters, pamphlets, or flyers supporting your opinion
13. Post your civic or political opinion on social media
14. Make up 5 poll or interview questions about a topic you know something about and hold an opinion on and poll/interview 10 people, then post your results
15. Volunteer your special skills to an organization
You can find a more comprehensive list of ideas at this link.
Curiosity is a good thing. And by the way, curiosity didn't kill the cat; it was boredom.
In North Carolina, we spent three days together with teachers, shepherding them through the inquiry-learning system: modeling inquiry-based lessons, reflecting upon our work, and assisting them in writing their own inquiry-based lessons. At the end of our three-day professional development, each of the 20 teachers presented the inquiry-based unit they had produced. In the months ahead, I will serve as a civic engagement expert and curriculum writing coach, helping these teachers create and teach two more inquiry-based units, which will serve as models and templates in the professional learning communities they will lead at their home schools. Next August, as a capstone of our work, in a professional development day for the entire social studies faculty of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School District, our peer leaders will present and share their units, best practices, and lessons learned from their experience. Our work has already been inspiring, empowering, and transformative for all the teachers involved, and as the lessons and excitement are shared through our professional learning communities, the effects of inquiry learning will ripple out through the schools and classrooms across the district.
In New Kent County Virginia, I led the New Kent High School social studies faculty in a daylong hyper-abridged inquiry-learning teach-in. Even in the confines of one short day, we were able to create inspiring and empowering lessons that ask students to follow compelling questions through a sea of pictures, photographs, cartoons, charts, graphs, maps, writings, journal entries, data, and more to find answers that they then act upon. The lessons the teachers created and shared at the end of the day were creative, compelling, and engaging, and I know their students will profit from these empowering inquiry-based lessons. I only wish I had more time to partner with these inspiring teachers.
Our inquiry learning professional development had a transformative and empowering effect on all the participants who will now share their excitement with their colleagues through their schools’ professional learning communities. I would love to bring the power of inquiry learning through professional learning communities to your district as we move from the past into the bright future.
If you'd like to bring training in inquiry learning to your school please contact me at email@example.com
Yesterday I led teachers and administrators in a professional development workshop on engaging and empowering learners. I began our workshop with a tale from my first year teaching history at the rough and tumble Stonewall Jackson Middle School in the heart of “Duce Ward” in inner city Houston.
I remember being surprised by the giant Roman numeral IIs graffitied across the Jackson schoolscape. At first I guessed there must be a very active Latin club or perhaps a super-engaging world history teacher behind these hand-painted Roman numerals. I was very, very wrong.
Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities had inspired me to work with Hispanic kids in the inner city, and I was exactly where I wanted to be, but still, Jackson Middle was eye-opening. I remember the joke a wisecracking cop told me on my first day of school.
“Hey, rookie,” the burly cop called out.
“Yeah, you, rookie.” Before I could walk over to shake hands and introduce myself, the cop laughed: “Hey Rookie, how many cops does it take to throw a student down the stairs at Jackson?” I winced.
“I don’t know…” I stammered.
“None!” The cop roared, slapping his thigh, spitting out his punch line, “He just slipped!”
The smartest person in the whole school was a kid named Jimmy. He didn’t have good grades or high PSAT scores or anything like that, but in his gangsta Dickies and long white t-shirt he burned with intelligence. With Jimmy, all the cognitive channels were open wide, and you could feel his brain whirring as he devoured all my class had to offer. Jimmy-the-kid was rumored to be a Southwest Cholo gang member, and at age 14 he already had Gothic gang tattoos on his knuckles. I’d been trying to connect with Jimmy all year but nothing seemed to work; not the little talks we’d have after class, not the sports analogies I’d land in class, not the Spanish slang I’d throw his way (time to write your essay, Ese). I wasn’t getting through, but I wasn’t about to give up on this brilliant kid and see his big brain put to work selling drugs or leading a gang.
One crisp Friday afternoon in October, Jimmy raced up to me at the end of class. He looked nervous, his eyes darted around the room. He was pale and sweat ran down his face.
“What’s wrong, Jimmy?” I asked.
“Meester,” he said. (All the students called all the male teachers Meester. It could make for confusion whenever a student needed one of us in the teachers’ lounge.) “There’s something I really want to talk with you about. Can you walk me to the bus Meester?”
I was elated. I’d finally broken through. I was just 25, hardly older than some of my students, and Jimmy wanted to talk to me. I was becoming a man. What, I wondered, did Jimmy want to talk about? Was he going to ask for more details on the Emancipation Proclamation? Did he want to borrow my favorite biography? This was my Stand and Deliver moment! I was ecstatic. At long last I was about to connect with Jimmy.
As we walked to the bus I was grinning ear to ear, but Jimmy was distracted, his gaze darting around every corner.
“Jimmy,” I said, “Why do you keep getting in fights, man? I mean, I don’t fight when I have problems.”
“And you don’t live in my neighborhood, Meester.”
Which was true – thank god! A softie like me wouldn’t have lasted a second at Jackson.
“But Jimmy, you’re so smart. You could really go somewhere! You could really make something of yourself with that big brain. I mean why don’t you even try, or turn your work in for once? You could be a star in my class!”
“No disrespect, Meester,” said Jimmy, “but it’s not like I’m planning to be a historian or nothin’.”
And that’s when I realized, smack in the middle of my first year teaching, that I wasn’t really trying to make my class into a little army of historians. In fact, I wasn’t really teaching history. What I was actually doing was teaching my students skills: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity - the Four Cs. And what I’ve learned in my 22 years teaching since then is that the best teachers always use their subject-- math, English, science, or whatever it is-- to teach their kids successful habits of being. We teachers were all taking different routes, but we were headed towards the same place.
As I spoke to Jimmy, I realized that these skills I was trying desperately to teach in my class were probably much more valuable in the Deuce Ward than they ever were back at my Alma Mater. At Wake Forest, if you couldn’t think critically or communicate creatively, then you’d have to suffer Daddy having bought you a Volvo instead of a Lexus. Here in the ‘hood, thinking fast could be a matter of life and death.
We arrived at the bus.
“So, Jimmy,” I said as he mounted the stairs to the bus. “What was it you were so desperate to talk about that you asked me to walk you out to the bus?”
“Oh nothin’, Meester,” he said casually.
“Nothin’? So why’d you ask me to walk with you? What was so important?”
“Oh yeah. That. Sorry Meester.” He paused and scanned the horizon. “So this other gang, Meester, they have a hit out on me. So I figures if a teacher walks to the bus with me, I’m less likely to get shot. You know what I mean? Capped!”
So that’s was the first time I saved a life! And you know, saving a life is something that you feel really good about, but you don’t particularly want to do again.
And that’s when I learned the second important lesson in my first year of teaching. When a gang member asks you to walk him to the bus, you tell him to download the Uber app.
I guess this is just a long way of saying content is not the ends, content is only the means to practice the skills and habits of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. And the good news is that the hit never happened; Jimmy ended up graduating from Jackson Middle; and we all practiced the 4Cs happily ever after.
The car I drove to my first day of teaching may have cooked your breakfast this morning. I bought a beat up baby blue Subaru in 1992 for 400 dollars cash. It was the best investment I’ve ever made. I drove that car from Maine to Canada to Mexico and back, adding 40,000 miles to the 190,000 she had when I got her. Salt water and years of neglect had eroded big enough holes in the car’s floorboard that as I drove back home, the world below passed by in full view, like I was the captain of a glass bottom boat.
Back from our international travel, the Subaru and I ended up in Houston where I taught immigrants in a rough inner-city school. Whenever I gave a student a ride home from school, I would warn them not to let their feet fall through holes. And although my students hardly spoke English, they would nod, smile and feet aloft, say, “Fleeenstone car, Meeester. He, he, he!”
One day, heading home at the end of school, as I unlocked the car door, a little sparrow that must have flown in through the floorboard, darted past me, furiously flapping its wings, and zigzagging into the Texas sky. Unfortunately for me, one of my students saw the liberation, and soon the whole school knew about my aviary on wheels, my very own Batmobile, my “Zoobaru.”
“No pets at school, Meester.” Was my greeting, walking into school the next morning. But that wasn’t the end. The sparrow soon evolved into a chicken. "Do you like to eat chicken at work, Meester?” I think you leave it in your car! He, he, he!" Throughout the day, the bird grew, from a chicken to a buzzard, then finally into an ostrich. For months, they’d ask for me to tell the story in class. “Tell us about your flying car, Meeester!” I was happy to oblige. Any way to get them to learn English.
These were desperately poor immigrant kids, living twelve to an apartment, working full time jobs after school and late into the night, riding public transport, barely able to afford shoes, wearing the same old clothes day after day after day. Their laughter helped them make it through hard times. They would look at my car and say, “This like carro in mi coontree, Meeester.” or, intentionally mispronouncing the name, say, "¿You car is call Pooparu no?" or "We have thing like your car in my coontree. We call it Donkey! He, he, he!" I’ve laughed with Haitians, Ethiopians, Nicaraguans, and Pakistanis who, otherwise, I could barely communicate with. Laughter translates, it’s universal, it erases just a bit of the space between us.
Before long my car had over 200,000 miles on it, and the holes in the floor were growing like the sparrow. Even with all my intricate duct tape work, I still had to carry a change of clothes in the car for whenever it rained. It felt like it was time for a Newbaru, so I called my bank to get my car’s Blue Book value. The banker asked me for the car’s specs. When I told him, he giggled, then asked me to guess my car’s value. I didn't have any idea, so I low-balled the number, hoping he would tell me to guess higher. “Fifty dollars?"
The banker did something I didn’t know was possible. He laughed, "Try half that!"
My beautiful car was officially worth $25. I had shirts that cost more than that. Books, worth more. Just that weekend, I had eaten a dinner more expensive than my car.
But my students’ language acquisition was improving and they were learning the rules of English grammar. By now, whenever they asked for the Fleenstone car story, they would put their hands in the air, making air quotes when they said, "car". One of my bolder students, a Mexican kid, raised his hand and asked, "Meester. You see the abandoned car somebody leave in you parking space?” He feigned embarrassment. “Oh. I sorry, is that you car, Meester? He, he, he!"
“At least you can’t get a speeding ticket!” An otherwise mute Pakistani said to howls of laughter.
That afternoon, I was driving the Zoobaru home, when I stopped, as I occasionally do, at a red light. I heard a jarring screech of tires, an earsplitting smashing of glass, and suddenly my car lurched forward. A van had rear-ended me. I sat dazed as the driver climbed out of his van and walked over to my car. He looked down through the front window, and when he saw asphalt, where the car’s floorboard should have been, he bit his lip and let out a small yelp. Without asking if I was injured, the van driver blurted out, “My insurance is really high!”
“You don’t mean it?" I said, hands clutching the steering wheel.
“Yep, I’ve had two wrecks this year.” It was January.
He did some mental calculations, scanned the street for witnesses, and said, “I tell you what. Let’s not get insurance involved. I’ll give you three hundred dollars for your car.”
As an ethical person I was in a quandary. One the one hand, my car looked almost exactly the same as before the crash; on the other hand, this car was a thing of legend: utterly unique. I hesitated. It had been a long day at work. I cast my eyes down to the floorboard, giving my best look of surprise and horror.
“Okay. Okay.” He said pulling out five one hundred dollar bills and a liability waiver he just happened to carry around with him.
“Sign here.” He blurted. I quickly signed the form.
“Congratulations on your new purchase.” I said, handing him the keys. He shook the keys off. “No. No. No. This never happened.” He said, sneering, before he rushed back to his van and speed off like a sparrow. I sat for a minute, rubbing the bills in my hand and feeling lucky to be alive. As I started up the old Subaru and drove away, a part of my broken taillight passed inches below my feet.
Once I finally wobbled my way back home I called a mechanic. When the mechanic arrived, he gave my old car a once over.
"It's a total loss," he said, "This car's pretty much a junker."
"Well it was pretty much a junker before the wreck," I said, "And that didn't stop me from getting $500 for it!"
He laughed. “Well I’d say you’ve had a pretty good day, then, young’un’.”
“Mister, “I asked, “How much would you give me for the parts and scrap metal?”
“Sir," He said, "My lawnmower’s got more metal on it than that Subaru.”
“I tell you what. How bout’ I haul it off, and we just call it even.”
Before he towed my baby to the graveyard I grabbed my foul weather gear from the Zoobaru, and sat at the wheel one last time, taking a moment to remember all the good times we’d had. As I sat there, reliving memories of Canadian forests, Mexican deserts, and my bird’s eye view of the Houston roadways, I imagined one last victory lap around the neighborhood, where hopefully someone else would hit and buy my car yet again. As I said my goodbyes to the Zoobaru, I thought about all the laughter it had created, all the boundaries it had helped me cross, all the divisions it had erased, and all the people it had connected. Some of my happiest teaching memories have been wrapped in laughter. Sitting there, gazing down between my shoes at the parking lot below, I spoke sweetly to the car about our life together, our travels her future as a toaster oven. I laughed out loud, and before I knew it she was gone.
This week I was inspired by an amazing TED Talk, given by the educator Sugata Mitra, whose work harnesses the power of children's curiosity and ingenuity to create powerful learning. By sparking children's interest, giving them freedom and encouragement to wonder, his students have achieved astronomical learning. Mitra has challenged me to think long and hard about how much learning autonomy I give.
This week, my personal teacher challenge is to infuse all of my work with moments and space for student autonomy. Over the span of three decades, I've taught thousands of students. One thing they all have in common is that I am no longer their teacher, but if I’ve done my job right, they are still learning. Powerful teaching sparks curiosity and imparts the tools and encouragement for perpetual learning.
So I’ve undertaken a perpetual-learning-experiment by embedding curiosity, tools, time, and encouragement for autonomy in my brand new unit on the judiciary. On day one, students are encouraged to ask questions that they are curious about; as we move forward, I channel their curiosity with tools, practices, and sources; and as they work towards their question, I praise them as they wonder towards autonomy. See for yourself.
Here’s three essential steps towards autonomous learning
1. Spark Interest – Ask big, wonderful, surprising questions as models for their own curiosity: I wonder how different our country would be if we didn’t have a Supreme Court?
2. Give Freedom – Muster any resources to help students pursue their questions.
3. Encourage – Nudge students towards valuable sources and tools with lots of praise.
I got an email yesterday. “Hey, Mister Milner! I just read this great article that’s really helping me understand this tragic migrant crisis. I thought your students might get something out of it!” Student becomes teacher, teacher becomes student; the cycle of learning continues. And as I think back, I realize that there was a teacher, all those many years ago who taught me to teach myself. Thanks, Mrs. Brown.